My mother, Irene Lillian Wells, was born in London, England in 1909. She was both a career woman and a military woman. She served in the British army, attaining the rank of sergeant. But at the age of 37 she left all that behind to move to "the Colonies," as her parents put it - but I'm jumping ahead a bit.
She met my dad while she was stationed in the Highlands of Scotland working on codes and cyphers. He was serving in the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry unit. As she told it, they met at a dance in Inverness. As a child I never thought of her as a war bride. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I appreciated all she’d done and all she’d left behind.
My parents were married in 1944 in London during the Blitz and actually spent one night of their honeymoon sheltering from the bombs in the London subway tubes. As she came down the stairs in her wedding gown, her father told her it wasn’t too late to change her mind. A year later, I was born in the Highlands near the Isle of Skye. As a child she would sing me the Skye Boat song.
In 1946, after the war was over, my father brought us back to his small town of Port Blandford at the bottom of Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland. It was quite a cultural shock to her. She’d grown up in an upscale London home with live-in help. Her father was an architect and her mother never worked outside the home. Then, all of a sudden, she was faced with carrying water from a well in buckets to wash clothes with good old Sunlight soap and a washboard - not to mention the horrors of going up the hill to the dreaded outhouse.
In time she learned to look after a horse and sheep, though she balked at the idea of owning a cow. (Insisting that her children have fresh milk, however, along came goats and we drank goat’s milk, instead.) She learned to make bread in a wood-burning stove that had to be constantly fed to keep us warm. Many a newborn lamb was saved on the heat of the oven door.
She picked blueberries and raspberries in summer to make jam, and learned to can or bottle all sorts of other foods, from moose to salmon, for the long winter months. She planted potatoes and fertilized them with caplin in June, then helped dig them in the fall. She learned to like the taste of moose meat, wild rabbits and salt fish, though she never did take a liking to salt beef. And she never mastered the art of cooking a decent Jiggs’ dinner, much to my father’s dismay. Most of these skills were taught to her by local women who had grown up doing all of these things.
Back then the only transportation was on foot or the train that came through once a day. Our little town was completely cut off by road until the late 1950s. My father came home from his job on the railroad once a month or so for a weekend, so for the most part she raised the three of us on her own.
No Place Like Home
A few times while my father was away, my mother became very homesick. By this time she had given birth to her second child, my brother, with only the town midwife and no doctor. My parents rounded out their family with a third child, my youngest brother.
One day, my father came home to find us all missing and followed us. I suspect with help and encouragement from her parents, my mother took us children and went back to England by boat.
However, we all returned to Newfoundland and she not only adapted to, but actually began to enjoy, her new life. She loved the “times” at the Orange Lodge where she often wrote and performed in plays and concerts. She was very much a people person and often persuaded others to perform as well. I remember she had a huge steamer trunk filled with beautiful evening gowns of lace, silk, satin and velvet, which she used as costumes in her plays. It was a little girl’s dress-up dream.
Among her favourite occasions was the Christmas season, with the mummering and kitchen parties. Christmas lasted 12 days in those times.
The Indomitable Mrs. Wells
My mother was also a bit of a local activist. Upon hearing my father complain of the workmen having to eat lunch outside in the snow, she immediately started writing to the railway men’s union and persisted until she was instrumental in having a railway car provided for them. She took care of my father’s unemployment forms in the fall and his income taxes in the spring. She also helped local people deal with any government issues. She was fearless, willing to take on anyone.
She was also a great animal lover, and we always had a family dog. On one occasion someone had beaten her dog with a wheelbarrow handle until it was paralyzed in its hind end. She promptly had him charged and not only took the weapon to court, but also the dog. She pleaded her case quite eloquently. The young fellow was found guilty and fined $50, a hefty sum in those days.
One of the things she most enjoyed was guarding her apple trees from the young fellows who liked to jump the fence late at night and raid them. In later life she was very active in the local Canadian Legion and always loved her card games.
She’s been gone now since 1990, laid to rest beside my dad in a pretty little churchyard overlooking the sea. People in my hometown still have great memories of her. She was loved, respected and feared by most. A lot of those young boys, now grandfathers themselves, still have memories of being chased over the fence by Mrs. Wells, as she was always known, with their pockets stuffed with green apples.
Four years ago I finally had the opportunity to go back to Scotland, the land of my birth. I toured the Isle of Skye that she had loved so much and walked the streets of Inverness where she had strolled with my father so many years before. It was a very moving experience and left memories that I’ll cherish forever.
This month her name, along with my dad’s, will be placed on a new war memorial along with the names of other veterans of my little hometown nestled on the shores of Bonavista Bay. All funds for this endeavour have been raised by local townspeople. This makes me even more proud of her and them. - By Elizabeth Norberg